Vine time on an Auckland island
Sydney and Auckland share several things — gnarled traffic, eye-wateringly expensive real estate and a CBD undergoing endless remodelling. Yet New Zealand’s most populous city has one up on its Australian counterpart when it comes to neat weekend escapes, for Sydney doesn’t have Waiheke Island, a 35-minute ferry hop from downtown. Once a hippie hangout, these days it’s home to about two dozen wineries and it can be hard to nab a seat on the ferry on a summery Saturday morning.
The island has its own microclimate — it’s drier and warmer than Auckland, 20km away — which is why it’s so good at growing grapes and attracting thousands of day-trippers. I arrive on the kind of day that makes you want to move countries. It’s also midweek, which means there’s room for me at The Oyster Inn, a micro-hotel that’s really a restaurant with rooms.
The inn, occupying a site that was once the island’s newspaper office, channels a casual yet luxurious beachside vibe. The upstairs restaurant and a downstairs boutique occupy the street frontage while three stylish guestrooms are tucked behind a door.
Everything about Room One makes me want to move in on a more permanent basis. I adore the soft merino throw draped over the kingsize bed and the stack of books at its foot, the oversized Aesop toiletries (ecofriendly; none of those tiny plastic bottles here) and the sunny yellow-white striped beach towels. These memorable touches are no surprise, given the owners’ backgrounds in hospitality and haute fashion. Jonathan Rutherfurd Best used to throw high-wattage celebrity parties around London while his partner, Andrew Glenn, once worked for Louis Vuitton.
Both have strong local roots. Rutherfurd Best was born and raised on the North Island while Glenn, who has a New Zealander father, grew up in Hong Kong. After falling in love with Waiheke, they wondered how they could fashion new lives here. A gap in the dining scene — “No one was doing seafood,” says Glenn — prompted them to open The Oyster Inn in 2012.
After touching down at Auckland airport at 5pm, I make it in time to dine at the inn, feasting on kumara sourdough, oysters from Kaipara Harbour northwest of Auckland, fish with Vietnamese slaw and a banoffeethemed pudding. Now that it’s dark, Waiheke’s scale is hard for me to grasp (it sprawls over 92sq km) but Glenn fills me in on practicalities.
The public bus will get me around part of the island but to reach the east coast, where the oft-recommended Man O’War Vineyards, which made the chardonnay I’m slurping, is located, I’ll need rental wheels. I haven’t packed my driver’s licence so it’s the bus for me.
That option still gets me close to one of Glenn’s favourite wineries, Te Motu, in the island’s interior, which specialises in the Bordeaux blends that first put Waiheke on the winemaking map. Its 2013 Kokoro (an extraordinary run of weather produced an epic 2013 vintage on Waiheke) turns out to be so smooth I can see why it made a recent list of the top 100 best new-release wines from Australasia.
If you need a lie-down after the tasting, head next door. After wobbling along a driveway shaded by planted windbreaks and passing a manicured helipad, I arrive at Stonyridge Vineyard, where visitors lounge on oversized lawn cushions, cradling wine glasses as music wafts through the air. What fun.
On another day, I lunch at Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant, where diners gaze across European-style clipped gardens to Auckland’s skyline. Of course, word is well and truly out about multimillion-dollar views like these. A savvy visitor books beds and tables on Waiheke well in advance or visits in off-peak times.
With so many pleasures at hand, it’s easy to see why some visitors start dreaming of owning a piece of Waiheke (or a section, to use the local parlance).
The Oyster Inn sits within a constellation of real estate agencies aimed at realising these fantasies, whether an old-fashioned shack (bach) or a more modern beach house. I pass an agency with its glass doors flung open to the warm afternoon breeze. Inside, people are lifting glasses of what I presume is a fine Waiheke red.
Looks like someone else just signed on the dotted line.
Katrina Lobley was a guest of Princess Cruises and The Oyster Inn.
The Oyster Inn, top; guestroom, top right; the inn’s Kombi transfer van, above; local oysters, below